By Ron Ferguson
February 18, 2018 - I grew up in a Scottish coal mining town that had a profound relationship with its local football (soccer) team. Cowdenbeath Football Club’s fortunes rose and fell with the fortunes of the coal industry. When coal mining flourished, Cowdenbeath FC performed wonders on the field of play, mixing with the elite players of their day; when coal mining went into decline, the club’s fortunes on the park showed a corresponding slide down the football leagues.
My forebears were originally iron workers in the West of Scotland. The demise of iron mining towards the end of the 19th century coincided with the explosive rise of coal mining in West Fife. Cowdenbeath, a quiet rural place, was soon transformed into an overcrowded mining town which was dubbed ‘the Chicago of Fife’. It was like the goldrush, but this time the colour was black. Coal was nicknamed ‘Black Diamonds’.
One of the people who took part in the exodus from Ayrshire to Fife was my great grandfather, Joseph Ferguson. His wife’s sister, Margaret Pollock, was therefore my great grand aunt. An antiques dealer in Cowdenbeath, Mrs Pollock went through to Glasgow in June 1880 to buy some furniture. In the shop she saw a leather football. She bought it to give to her sons, who were cricketers. After one cricket match, two of her boys, John and James, picked up the football - the first leather ball ever seen in Cowdenbeath - and started playing with it. They enjoyed kicking the ball so much that they decided to form a football club in the town. Other clubs were soon formed, and they eventually merged to form Cowdenbeath Football Club in 1881. (The internationally-known Celtic Football Club was actually founded eight years after the formation of Cowdenbeath FC.)
The crucial years from 1870 to the turn of the century saw the founding of Cowdenbeath’s coal industry, football club and town. As the demand for coal soared, and Cowdenbeath Coal Company merged into the Fife Coal Company, the town became a bit more prosperous and the football club began to flourish. So right from the start, the foundations of the burgeoning coal industry, the expansion of the town of Cowdenbeath and the development of Cowdenbeath FC were fundamentally interlinked. If coal hadn’t been found in the farmlands of Cowdenbeath, there would have been no town of that name and no senior football club. Without the ‘Black Diamonds’ there would have been no ‘Blue Brazil’, one of the nicknames of Cowdenbeath FC.
Almost all of the Cowdenbeath team were coal miners, and the football club’s other nickname was ‘The Miners’. On Saturday match days, Cowden players would rush straight from the colliery to the football stadium. They didn’t even have time to have a shower. If a player went down injured during the game and his football top had to be removed, his body would be covered in coal dust. These were tough men.
In the early days of coal mining at the turn of the 20th century, labour was cheap, and so was life itself. Digging for coal in the bowels of the earth was hazardous. Some were maimed, some lost their lives. Going to the rescue of doomed colleagues was a badge of honour in the coalfields. A miner’s safety depended on the vigilance of colleagues, and he needed to know that if he got into difficulties he could count on his fellow miners to try to rescue him.
In one mining disaster, Cowdenbeath Football Club’s captain, Bob Law, was lowered on a rope into a yawning chasm, where he rescued three men who had been entombed. Andrew Carnegie, a native of Dunfermline (which was situated three miles along the road from Cowdenbeath) was so moved by Law’s heroism that he gave him £100 – a considerable sum in those days. Carnegie, who made his fortune in the USA, never forgot his humble roots; the great philanthropist’s wealth funded many libraries and public parks in Scotland.
(Editor’s Note: This is the first in a series of articles about Cowdenbeath FC, the home of “The Miners”, located in Fife, Scotland, who are seeking support from members of the United States coal industry. Ron Ferguson’s story of coal, football and community will continue in future articles.)
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